Vietnam: The First Year

On the veranda of the Continental Hotel overlooking the main square of Saigon, the foreign officers, the girls in elegant Western clothes, the long-haired children of the Saigon bourgeoisie are gone now, replaced by young soldiers from Hanoi and peasants who have come to town as political commissars of the revolution. They sit in the same old yellow armchairs drinking the locally made “33” beer or café filtre.

The waiters, who now serve without their old white uniforms, are all still there, except Joseph, who on April 30 last year turned out to be a Vietcong agent and now, smiling with a new set of false teeth and wearing a red armband on his green uniform, is in charge of security for the whole block. Monsieur Loi, the old Vietnamese manager of the hotel, after a public trial in which he was accused of being a “comprador” exploiter, has “retired,” and his place has been taken over by a revolutionary management committee. The hotel is no longer for private citizens or tourists. It is now the “Hotel of the Popular Insurrection,” and it is exclusively reserved for official delegations and cadres coming from the North.

On Tu Do Street girls in miniskirts still wave at the passers-by from the dark doors of open bars, young boys in tight, colored shirts still ride their Hondas. Except for a few shops owned by Indians who have left the country, the old boutiques where one can buy a cheap leather jacket or a baseball cap with the golden inscription “boss” are still open for business. The Russians, whom the Saigonese refer to as “Americans without dollars,” seem the rare patrons. The Miramar Hotel, which after Giai Phong—the liberation—was taken over by the revolutionary government, is managed by a cadre appointed by the new authorities; but along with a stream of Vietnamese experts and political commissars arriving from Hanoi it now houses a group of “obstinate” Saigon girls who still work at their classic trade, paid by the hour.

Untamed Saigon, one might think. But a visitor like myself, who left Saigon three months after the communist takeover and returns looking for places and persons he knew, soon realizes that the first impression of an unchanged Saigon is false. Under the old, hard skin of a city that has already survived so many upheavals, life has been profoundly transformed, and the revolution is turning everything upside down, as it enters families, schools, factories, and churches.

The rich wife of Senator Tran Van Thuyen, one of the “puppets” in the “reeducation camps,” still lives in her elegant villa on Hung Tap Tu Street; but having lost all her income she has opened a bicycle shop at her front gate. The whole family of N. C. Tien, a landlord of the Delta, was arrested while trying to leave the country by boat out of Nha Trang. The tricyclo driver and his family whom I used to visit in Gia Dinh during the war have …

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